I believe Mark Twain would be a screenwriter if he were alive today. I think writer-director Jeff Nichols feels the same way.

Twain was an inspiration for the 34-year-old Little Rock native's third film Mud, which stars Matthew McConaughey as the title hermit who isolates himself on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River for reasons he's not quick to share but which become apparent and then obvious as we get deeper into the film.

Mud is the only name we ever know, so we're left to guess his relationship with one other character we meet later, a grizzled old river rat named Tom Blankenship played by Sam Shepard. Mud is discovered after two best friends, Ellis and Neckbone--played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland--investigate a rumor they've heard about a cabin cruiser sitting in the top of a tree on an island in the Mississippi. Sure enough, that boat is in the treetops and Mud calls it home.

While suspicious at first, the boys come to befriend Mud and then later protect him as men--including police officers and far less savory individuals--start coming out of the woodwork wanting to know his whereabouts.

Even those peripheral to Mud's existence--like the love of his life, Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon--are in danger. You could consider Mud and Juniper star-crossed lovers because, while they had a previous relationship, they never meet in this film.

A subplot about Ellis's troubled homelife also works well, and that's relevant because it's important to know as much as possible about these boys because of their involvement with the film's adult characters. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland--a 16- and 15-year-old, respectively, playing 14-year-olds--are terrific actors who perfectly capture that maddening teen tendency to circle the wagons and keep their mouths shut, even if it means putting themselves in danger.

But it's the performance of Matthew McConaughey that's a real eye-opener. I've long considered him simply a big star whose name can go above the title. But the character he creates in Mud is full-blown. You can always see there's something he'll never tell and what his relationship with Juniper was probably like just by his body language because the two characters never interact on screen.

I think Mark Twain would have seriously appreciated Mud, because it contains all the elements of his best stories but it's also convincingly contemporary. Southeastern Arkansas location shooting only enhances the film's authenticity.

I hope you give Mud a try. It's an unconventional release for the summer movie season, but still well worth the time.

Mud is now playing at the Malco Cinema 16.